Pull up Psalm 23 here...
NIV at BlueLetterBible.org (with interlinear tools)
Tillihim at Chabad.org (with Rashi's commentary)
Mizmor Kaf Gimmel at Hebrew4Christians.com (with Hebrew audio)
...and then soak in the notes below. Welcome.
A Psalm Of David
Like 72 other psalms, Psalm 23 has a superscription that reads "a Psalm of David." Most scholars agree it's unlikely King David is the actual author.
Instead, imagine a poet making his or her prayers remembering David, an icon of leadership, faith and human frailty. These psalms are dedicated to David, inspired by David, or crafted while remembering a story from David's life.
A life of trust
A first look, and Psalm 23 is about presence, guidance and trust. We hear it at funerals and maybe part of bedtime prayers. As a shepherd cares for his or her sheep, God's careful attention, refreshment, comfort, and good blessing apply to the people of God.
In some parts of the world, such as South Africa, Psalm 23 has political meaning: "Who is my shepherd? The Lord is my shepherd". Over and against any imposing empire, the people of God claim their identity as ones belonging first to God. Ringing through the psalm is the counter-cultural commitment of being dependent. Like sheep look to their shepherd who knows them, people offer themselves to the direction and trusted guidance of the shepherding God. "Thy will be done" is the prayer of our breathing.
Psalm 23 also describes a good leader. The image of shepherd in the Older Testament is a metaphor for the national leader-- a model for the kings of ancient Israel. Just as God is named the Shepherd of Israel, any king annointed as royalty was hoped to embody God's blessing. Hear the "My Love is My Shepherd" song.
Ups and Downs, Brightness and Shadow
Perhaps the most important theme of Psalm 23 is that God is present in all moments and all seasons. Happy, easy times-- green, grassy meadows by soul-restoring waters (v.2-3)-- and suffering times, in the valley of the shadow of death where evil, fear and danger are very real (v.4).
The psalm is clear that life is hard. Enemies, evil, confusion and fear are very real to the Psalmist. In these times of "the darkest valley," the poem-song assures hope for a lifetime of blessing.
pic by Christine Valters Paintner
pic by Jesse Therrien
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi on Psalm 23
Rabbi Harold Kushner on the valley:
"The psalm does not deny the shattering reality of death and loss, nor does it minimize how painful death and loss can be to us. It never asks us to pretend, as some religious teachings do, that death does not change things... It acknowledges the emotional darkness we find ourselves in when a loved one is dying or has died, the “valley of the shadow of death.”
But instead of cursing a God who permits our loved ones to die, it introduces us to a God who is with us in our pain, and who leads us through the dark valley back into the light.
...And this is the way the psalmist would teach us to see the world, without illusions that nothing bad will ever happen, but without the fear that we will be utterly destroyed by things that do happen.
We will hurt, but we will heal.
We will grieve, but we will grow whole again."
Kushner, Harold S. The Lord is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-Third Psalm. New York: Alfred Knopf, Random House, 2003. p 27.
pic by Breahn Foster, creative commons
pic by Gogoloopie, creative commons
Life on the Move
My neighbor Ev is a shepherd-- handy for a Psalmist-- so I asked him about the finer points of tending a flock. He said the number one thing is moving the sheep.
To get to pastures where the grass is rich, you've got to leave the meadow that's been eaten up and trampled. Kind of a no-brainer, but Ev has over a dozen paddocks where he corrals his sheep as the sesons turn.
Philip Keller, an east African shepherd agrees:
Sheep need to be moved! They will eat grass
all the way through to the root if not moved.
It’s the most important element of shepherding
successfully, the design of movement of the flock.
(A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970. p50-51).
A life in God is a life on the move. The people of God are always being beckoned, ushered or pushed out of our present situation into the wider world.
But is there ever a time and place to rest?
Maybe the idea of whole-life rest isn't what we think. Maybe it's not so much lounging in non-stressed-out-ness as it is knowing our identity. St. Augustine, the African theologian, invites a prayer of trust: “God, you have made us, and our souls are restless, searching, til they find rest in you.” (Ps. 62)
Time to get your Hebrew on.
Hesed (HESS-ed) is what in English
is often translated "steadfast love." In Psalm 23.6, it's "lovingkindness."
Unfailing love, covenant love, holy compassion, unearned and passionately persistant grace.
Throughout the First Testament of the Bible, there's nothing on earth like it.
In the Newer Testament, Paul describes it in Romans 8: the love of God that bridges all things and makes all
things possible, even in the
face of despair.
Barbara Cawthorne Crafton: a Different Comfort
"I almost hate to bring it up, but I think you should know: most scholars believe the word “comfort” in this psalm doesn’t mean what we normally associate with the word. When we think of comfort, we are apt to think of somebody nice stroking our hair, or of settling into a lovely hot bath, or of being consoled by a best friend when we are sad...
Nope. Look at the verse again.
What is it that “comforts” the psalmist? A rod and a staff. A big stick.
Think about it for a minute; you don’t stroke somebody gently with a big stick. you prod with a stick. A shepherd uses his stick to prod and push the sheep, to keep them going where they’re supposed to go and prevent them from going somewhere they shouldn’t.
The word “comfort” is used here with an old meaning that modern English has forgotten; com- (with) + fortis (strong). To strengthen. To make strong. Not to stroke gently, but to push forward toward a destination, to empower in order to reach a goal."
Crafton, Barbara Cawthorne. Meditations on the Psalms For Every Day of the Year. Harrisburg: Morehouse Publishing (a Continuum imprint), 1996. p17
Jordanian shepherd pic by Sara Haj-Hassan
pic by Iris Scherer
Indian shepherd pic by Vasant Dave
A Shepherd on that whole Rod and Staff thing
African shepherd Phillip Keller says a shepherd's ‘rod’ is a weapon of authority and defense. Picture an Old West gunslinger.
After choosing a sapling branch suited to his or her hand, the shepherd practices hurling it for speed and accuracy so that when proficient, it can be the main defense of the flock and the shepherd as well. The rod might also be tossed at wayward sheep to prevent them from wandering off.
A shepherd will also use a rod in counting the sheep and to carefully examine the deep wool for parasites, to assess the condition of the fleece which indicates their overall health. But mostly, the rod is an implement of protection.
The staff, on the other hand, is a tool of nurture and patience. The staff is used for gathering the sheep together as an intimate flock, and if traveling, reaching for wandering ones to bring them back onto the path. A shepherd might use the tip of the staff to touch a particular sheep to tame it over time, making the sheep aware of the shepherd's presence. The result may be a special bond. Lastly, the staff is used in lambing season to lift the newborn lamb to its mother. Using hands can put human scent on the lamb which puts the mother off, even to the point of possibly rejecting the newborn.
Every job has tools of the trade. For the shepherd, rod and staff represent passionate nurture and steady direction.
Keller, Philip. A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970. p 93-95, 99.
God as Stalker
In verse 6 of Psalm 23, some translations read "Surely G-d's hesed (goodness and mercy) are following me all the days of my life."
"Following me" sounds friendly enough, like a puppy trotting along behind, or a slow friend not quite keeping up on a walk. However, the word in Hebrew, radaf, has a different connotation. It means to run after as to hunt and capture. The term that might describe the relentless pursuit of fierce and tireless enemies is the word that describes God's hesed here.
A better translation would be: God's love is constantly and relentlessly coming after us. Every. Day. And for the rest of our lives.
The song, "Surely Goodness and Mercy" helps this promise soak in.
God as stalker.
It's not entirely comfortable, is it?
In Psalm 139, God's presence is described as hemming us in on all sides, a clautrophobic, even imposing metaphor.
Theologian William P. Brown puts it this way: kind goodness is "in hot pursuit to hunt
[the Psalmist] down, as it were, from which
there is no escape."
Brown, William P. Seeing the Psalms: A Theology of
Metaphor. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002. p40.
Netherlands shepherd pic by Elly Kellner
Shepherd from the valley of Pamirs, among a mountain range in central Asia. Licensed via DepositPhotos.com
Shepherd about to hurl.
Life in the Big House
The closing line of Psalm is delivered with startling clarity.
I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
To belong in the "house of the Lord" may bring to mind a great mansion, a vaulted tablernacle. A place of mystery, beauty and confidence.
God's "house" may also be imagined as family or, as it pertains to the sheep metaphor, the flock.
To be part of God's gathered people is to feel at home, knit into the world-wide community that is the people of God.
Psalm 87 speaks of belonging with three rich metaphors: We are born of a mother who cannot forget us, born in the holy city of Jerusalem whose records are undeniable, and we grow connected to deeply grounded roots. In each of these three images, we are claimed unconditionally with the promise that our status will not and cannot change.
The song, "All of My Days," embodies this theme.
Palastinian shepherd. Pic licensed via DepositPhotos.com
Wrapping Up: New Testament Connections
Though the Hebrew Bible is complete in its witness of G-d's great covenant,
Christians tend to hear Psalm 23 connected to the many shepherd/sheep allusions
in the gospels. Rabbi Jesus and the New Testament certainly knew their Psalms.
John 10: Jesus as the good shepherd and gate
Mark 6: Jesus feeds the multitiude on green grassy meadows
Matthew 25: Parable of the sheep and the goats
A misty shepherd. Pic licensed via DepositPhotos.com
A Psalmist's Blessing
Whether you be on easy roads or trudging a fearful valley, may you pay close attention for the gifts along the way.
Whatever is happening now, the Psalms remind us, seasons change.
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